Student discovers self in science


October 14, 2022

Brady Slater

Emily Lockling stands on the main staircase at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, where she developed a love for science and mapping data she collects in the field.

There was a time Emily Lockling didn't know what she wanted to study or do with her future.

But a nudge from her mother, Jodie Lockling, a language teacher at the Fond du Lac Ojibwe School, helped to unlock her daughter's potential.

"I came home crying one day," Emily said, recalling her days as a first-year student at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College. "I was like, 'I don't want to do this; I don't know why I'm in school anymore.'"

Emily's mom asked her to summon one thing about post-secondary school she had liked, and Lockling said working with the microscopes in anatomy class.

Science had never been her forte. A 2018 graduate, she muddled through science classes at Cloquet High School.

"I didn't know what I wanted to do," she said.

But that one small breakthrough - enjoying microscopes - sent her into the tribal college's Environmental Institute, and catapulted Lockling onto a path forward. In two years at Fond du Lac, she learned beekeeping, studied mercury levels in rivers, lakes and streams associated with the St. Louis River, and, finally, worked as an intern for NASA - yes, that NASA - on a project studying snow and its involvement in replenishing watersheds.

"Snow is one of the main sources of freshwater we have in the water cycle system," Lockling said. "It's what feeds into a lot of our water resources."

Now studying geographic information systems at the University of Minnesota Duluth, Lockling agreed to meet the Pine Knot back in Cloquet, on the community college campus where she discovered a sense of purpose.

"It's super-useful in environmental science to map out what you're seeing," she said of her pursuit of a GIS degree.

She already holds a certificate that indicates proficiency in using GIS.

"I just love making GIS maps," she said. "I love gathering the data and putting it together. Whether that's gathering my own data in the field, or finding the perfect data set online."

Lockling wasn't a science fair kid. She wasn't on the main stage at graduation. But she was resilient and determined to find her way. She first tried nursing.

"It takes a lot of really special people to do nursing," she said. "And I don't like anatomy, and I struggled through Math for Medications (class)."

Courtney Kowalczak called Lockling "a shining example of what a lot of students experience."

Kowalczak is the director of the tribal college's Environmental Institute.

"It's amazing when a student finds their path," Kowalczak said. "Emily learned about what we do here at the institute and became interested in research projects. It was amazing to see. She just blossomed. It makes us feel good to offer something that lights that passion in a student. They take it and make it their own."

Starting with the college's mercury-dragonfly project, Lockling joined teams visiting bodies of water to capture dragonflies in their larval form. Studying those can give an idea of how much mercury is in the water.

Mercury is a bioaccumulative contaminant, meaning it travels up the food chain - from microscopic bugs, or benthic organisms, to fish and waterfowl.

"It's cheaper than catching fish and sampling fish," Lockling said of studying dragonflies. "But it still gives you an indication of how much mercury is going to be in the fish in the water."

She got to peer at the dragonflies under a microscope, looking at their jaws, tails, antennae, eyes and more, to note differences.

As both a tribal and land grant college, Kowalczak explained, Fond du Lac has a responsibility to research concerns reflected in its surrounding community.

"There's obviously a lot of fish consumption advisories," Lockling said. "In our area, everybody loves eating fish and loves fishing. It's a way of life traditionally, culturally and recreationally. It's important to keep an eye on the climate and environment as it's changing and understanding ecotoxicology. Is it safe to eat the stuff around here?"

In order to work for NASA, Lockling had to be accepted as an intern into its ongoing SnowEx project.

She began by analyzing and mapping data collected in Colorado, California, Idaho and upper elevations of New Mexico. But soon, she was part of a team that was going out in the field and collecting data in locations on campus, in Moose Lake, and at the Band's Gitigaaning farm outside Cloquet.

Brady Slater

"We're at this really unique cross section of two biomes, so it was fun to see the different kinds of snow we have," Lockling said, describing the overlapping types of forests in northern Minnesota, filled with both needle-bearing and leaf-dropping trees.

She described NASA's goal to be able to use satellite technology to measure snow depth. The field data she helped gather will be used in determining which technology and methods of satellite measurements work best. It's all aimed at learning more about the snow water equivalent.

"Snow water equivalent tells you how much water that snow will melt down into," Lockling said.

In talking with Lockling, it's clear she's developed deep understandings of her work. For someone who didn't know what she wanted, she sounds like a fledgling scientist.

"I'm just really proud of her," Kowalczak said. "She's got a bright future."


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